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On Eagle's Wings—A Rabbi Confronts her Cancer Diagnosis During the High Holidays

YEARS AGO, when I first moved to New York City, I hung a small poster in my apartment with a passage by Eleanor Roosevelt:

You gain strength, courage and determination by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.

At the time, I thought it a powerful message to remember as a human being and as a rabbi, for there are few things as profound as the confrontation with our deepest fears.

The Yamim Noraim — the High Holy Days — afford us an annual opportunity to confront some of those fears and the greatest mysteries of our existence. When we emerge at Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur, tradition teaches us that we should be joyful at that service: grateful for having lived through another year, satisfied that our

Last August, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was stunned, overwhelmed, and afraid. I was a 34-year-old wife, mother of a 15-month-old. I had no history of breast cancer in my family. I was about to begin preparations for the High Holy Days at my congregation, West End Synagogue, in New York. You could say there was no better preparation for those Days of Awe. Colleagues quipped that I could have found another way to be inspired.

As during the days following September 11th, 2001, I let the immediacy of the moment take over. After being diagnosed, I made the difficult decision not to lead services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I needed to focus on my treatment and healing. The community, while as shocked as I, was more than supportive. I remarked to a colleague, "I know this is the right decision, but this is such great material — I am a walking Yom Kippur sermon!" He gently reminded me that I would be even better sermon material after treatment was over.

My family and I spent Rosh Hashanah out of the city, but returned for a scheduled chemotherapy session on Yom Kippur, which I did not want to alter and risk impacting the treatment cycle. Thanks to a colleague at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, where I had served as a rabbinic fellow before coming to West End, I was provided with a recording of services from a few years ago. I was able to be immersed in the prayer and music of the day, all the while noting the obvious irony of my situation. My Jewish oncologist joked that now she'd never get off for the holidays since the rabbi was having chemo on Yom Kippur.

As surreal as the day was, the words of the liturgy spoke volumes and, for me, spoke the truth. When we read the haunting words of unetaneh tokef, the prayer that speaks plainly about the uncertainty of life, we are reminded of all the things that, unfortunately, we can count on in our world. What we don't know is when such things will happen or to whom.

The words of the mahzor are meant to mirror our lives. They teach us that life is fragile, that we can be here today and gone tomorrow. They teach that our lives are full of tremendous opportunities for praise but also for questioning and fear. As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, teaches in the Kol Haneshamah mahzor, our task is to live our lives fully, directed to godliness, reflecting who we are and where we are going, and acknowledging our deep connection with others.

So there I was at St. Vincent's Comprehensive Cancer Center on Yom Kippur — which also coincided with my 35th birthday. I was saving my own life while feeling the warm companionship of the rabbis of old, who were also confronted by their mortality in a more dangerous time. This was only my third chemo treatment out of a total of eight, but I already had a ritual life to go along with the treatment. My dear friend, Sarah Fenner, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous year, had created a siddur to take with her to treatment and had sent me a copy. It was filled with prayers, psalms, and empty pages to which I could add readings, family pictures, anything that would bring me comfort in a most uncomfortable experience.

When the first chemotherapy drug, Adriamycin, began to flow, I recited Sarah's berakha: Brikh Rahamana Malka d'alma marei d'hai tipa — Blessed are You Compassionate One, Master of this drop. I associated these droplets with the "saving dew" and "saving rain" that we pray for on Pesah and Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret). The connection was obvious between the waters that quench, nourish, and literally save the earth and the fluids that were available literally to save my life. As afraid as I might have been, each time chemo began, I felt protectively held in suspension above the void of the unknown.

On Yom Kippur I began my prayers with the words hadesh yameinu kekedem — "renew our days as in the beginning." Never before had those words meant so much. I was praying to be able to return to myself, to look back on this experience simply as a blip on the glorious horizon of my life. While the diagnosis of breast cancer wasn't something to be grateful for, I was also praying to be renewed by this challenge and to rededicate myself to living a full and vibrant life.

We don't usually take the opportunity to do this kind of deep work until we are staring our deepest fears in the face.

There is no question that upon learning that you have cancer or any other illness, or when confronted by any number of crises in life, the natural tendency is to ask "Why?" — as if God, or the universe, or even the Power that makes for Salvation, could ever answer such a question. The texts and liturgy of our tradition were comforting to me because I found that they transform the question "why" into "what" and "how" and "when."
• What is there to learn and experience from the challenges each of us must face in our lives?
• How might we garner all the strength and determination to face what might lie ahead?
• When will we know that this experience is yet just one more fold in the fabric of our life?

I deeply believe that these questions emerge from the "circumcised" or open heart that is described as part of our covenant with God in the book of Deuteronomy, as read in the weeks just before Rosh Hashanah. The open heart might be challenged or even broken, but it is still open to receive.

In one of my favorite parshiot, Parashat Nitzavim, in chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, the last verse reads: “u’vaharta bahaim l’ma-an tihye” —choose life that you might live. One commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, a Jewish scholar and scientist of the 12th, century comments that “hahayim khem l’ahava” — life is for love — and immediately following, “ki hu hayekha” — for God is life. Ibn Ezra teaches that the experience of God, love, and life are tightly woven together and are critical to our conception of the covenant between God and the Jewish people that we affirm on these days. The Israelites didn’t know what they would encounter in the Promised Land any more than you or I know what tomorrow will bring. But their connection to something bigger than themselves is what often sustained them as they made their way through uncharted territory — even if they had to be reminded of it later by the prophets.

The experience of being diagnosed with a life threatening illness brings out just about every emotion, including fear — and each has the potential to teach us something important about life. Yet even without the challenges of breast cancer and other hardships, our holiday cycle, liturgy and ritual life offer the opportunity for theological confrontation and reconnection to the covenant. But the opportunity for covenantmaking, which is so embedded in our Jewish tradition, doesn’t only come our way on the holy days or festivals. We read in the daily liturgy, “hamehadesh b'tuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit” — each day the acts of creation are renewed for the good. We cannot choose all the things that will happen in our life, its beginning or its end. But every day we are responsible for the quality of love and commitment that defines our life. That is our part in the covenant.

Although the memories of chemotherapy are thankfully beginning to fade in my mind, my experience last Yom Kippur is one that will remain as one of the greatest opportunities I have had to embrace our tradition in an untraditional way. More importantly, it was, for me, one of the most profound expressions of the famous teaching of the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: “The old has become new, and the new has become holy.” As every day my recovery and healing are more and more secured, I feel blessed by my physical and spiritual resilience. God didn’t have anything to do with my diagnosis, and being a rabbi didn’t save me from this encounter, either. But my faith, my spiritual life, and my deep connection to community are those things which carried me on eagle’s wings through this passage.

Type: RT Article

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